Leaving Academia: Learning to Grieve – #Postac Post

Dr. Lisa Munro

by Lisa Munro, PhD*

This is the second of a three-part blog post series by Lisa Munro. The first is here.

A big part of my work in crime victim advocacy involves preparing people to take their next steps forward so they know what to expect. If, for example, I’m on a crime scene talking to a victim of domestic violence, I talk with them about the upcoming steps in the court process. If I’m on scene and talking to a family after the suicide of a loved one, I talk with them about what the coroner will do during the investigation, the grief process, and the next decisions they’ll need to make. With some information about what to expect, people feel more informed and ready for the next step.

I was not prepared in any way for the intensity of the emotional fallout of leaving academia, which punched me square between the eyes precisely because I wasn’t expecting it. I had expected to celebrate my decision not to pursue an academic career. I thought I’d feel relief, freed from a culture of pseudo-meritocracy, adjunct exploitation, and nefarious neoliberal university restructuring schemes. I didn’t understand why I felt so awful when what I expected was joy.

After a while, I realized that what I felt was genuine grief.

In 1969, Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the world to her model for grieving in her book, On Death and Dying. She proposed that grief happens in five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Her work transformed how we think about grief. Critics of the Kübler-Ross model argue that the stages of grief aren’t really stages at all; in this regard, they are absolutely right. The stages of grief often feel more like phases or sometimes even like polite suggestions about one of life’s most intense emotional experiences. Grief is not a linear, orderly experience, but rather a roller-coaster complete with upside-down loops and unexpected turns. People in grief often cycle through all of the phases many times and then back again. Sometimes just when a person thinks that they’ve reached acceptance, something sucks them backwards into anger or they’re back to trying to bargain their way out of loss. Nevertheless, the concept of the five stages of grief provides people a road map for what to expect in the aftermath of losing something or someone we cared about deeply.

Grief is the process by which we accept new realities. In my last post, I talked about the trauma of identity loss. Losing one’s identity hurts so very, very much. Grief is a normal and healthy response to the loss of someone or something we love. It is an absolutely vital and necessary part of letting go so that we can keep moving forward. Grief can, however, also temporarily hijack people’s lives, taking control over living, thinking, and doing. Grieving consumes huge amounts of emotional and physical energy. Grief can feel uncontrollable, frightening, fierce, irrational and wholly unpredictable.

We fight grief sometimes. We don’t want to have anything to do with it or we deny that grief is something we need. We also sometimes try to rationalize and control grief, as if we’re the ones in charge. Grief is not an intellectual project; it is an involuntary experience of the heart and soul. If you’re grieving, know this: you can trust in the grief process. Giving oneself fully to the grief process often feels frightening, as if grief may swallow us whole and we may never return. Grief, however, is faithful. It will take you where you need to go, eventually leading you to quiet acceptance. Grief is also an incredibly taboo subject in academia. Much like issues of mental health, grief isn’t something that most people are comfortable discussing. Sometimes people feel ashamed for even having grief in the first place, as if they are somehow bad people. Healing a broken heart after losing a huge chunk of your life, identity, and career requires grieving; there is literally nothing to be ashamed of.


I’ve discovered that there’s no timeline on grief, either. I’ve been out of academia for two years and am just now coming to accept my choices. Here’s kind of how my personal grief process went. Identifying and naming the experience as grief made it feel less frightening. Keep in mind that my grief process wasn’t nearly as neat and tidy as I’ve presented it here. It felt chaotic, confusing, exhausting, and endless. I’ve come to better acceptance about my situation, but I still struggle with it some days.


When I was still on the academic job market, I ignored everyone who told me that the job market had collapsed and wouldn’t be making a comeback anytime soon. When I received a bunch of rejection letters, I told myself that it was just a fluke. I’d be the exception to the rule. I continued to revise my application materials and apply to any job that seemed like a possibility. It was just a matter of time. I wasn’t giving up. I was not a quitter.


After a few unsuccessful years on the market, I got angry. When I realized that I’d been flat out rejected by the very system that had trained me to be a scholar, all I could feel was rage. And to be honest, righteous indignation feels pretty good. I raged about the corporate university and the neoliberal market schemes that had decimated higher education. I ranted about the adjunct crisis to anyone who would listen. Anger feels good, but its also exhausting. It burns bright, but then burns out.


I felt angry, but I was also flat broke. I started wondering if maybe I’d been too hasty. If maybe I should give the job market one more try. I thought about trying to get a post-doc or a visiting assistant professorship. If I were to get one of those jobs, I’d take back all of the awful things I’d said about academia. I was ready to strike any number of Faustian bargains. If the universe would cooperate and grant me a small miracle in the form of even a short-term academic job, I’d agree to living in a place I definitely did not want to live in exchange for temporary health insurance. I really wasn’t asking all that much. I just wanted to feel like the work I’d put into my PhD hadn’t been a huge waste of time and money.


Eventually, I literally didn’t know what to do. I was pretty sure at this point that my PhD had ruined my life. I was 39 years old, broke, unemployed, and drowning in massive student loan debt. I felt unemployable and worthless. Out of desperation, started sending out non-academic resumes. In return, I received a whole new pile of rejection emails. I sank lower, realizing I’d spent my 30s accruing a huge amount of debt for a humanities degree that disqualified me from most employment. I’d sacrificed years of paying work and had nothing to show for it but a fancy degree and some Ikea furniture. I cried a lot. I cycled between anger and sadness often, the opposing sides of the same coin.


Like everything else about grief, acceptance appeared when I least expected it. I’d wanted to arrive at acceptance with a loud bang, a drum roll, and a megaphone to announce that my heart had finally come to terms with my decision not to pursue academia as a career. A champagne toast would have been a welcome touch. Instead, when acceptance came, it came as if on soft, silent cat paws so quiet I hardly noticed. I found myself starting to think about what I really wanted to do in life. I wanted to write. I began thinking about how I might do that. I did some brainstorming. I realized one day that I was making plans to create a life that I wanted more than I wanted an academic career. I was healing, slowly.

If you’re grieving, here are some things that you can do:

  • Validate your own experiences and feelings. Whatever you’re feeling is okay and normal. Sometimes other people can’t or won’t understand how we feel. Your healing does not depend on them understanding your story. Your healing depends on YOU understanding, accepting, and standing tall and resolute in your truth. At the beginning, you might not like your new story of academic exodus very much. It sounds and feels like failure. That’s okay and normal. You don’t have to like your story right now. Know that it might be a while before you get anywhere near healing or acceptance.
  • Grief often makes people feel isolated and alone. In other cultures, grief is much more of a community experience and public event. People often want to help support others in grief but they don’t know how. Ask your people for help. Maybe you need someone to check in on you every week and ask how you’re really doing and actually care about the answer. Maybe you need a gym buddy to keep you exercising while you’re grieving. Maybe you need a friend to help you with cooking actual meals for a while because all you can manage to eat is cereal. Figure out what you need and ask people to help you.
  • You might also just need people to listen to you. You can ask people to listen and not say anything. Grief is so awkward and uncomfortable that most people try to fill the void with meaningless conversation. It’s okay to let people know that they don’t have to say anything and that just listening is enough. When people listen to our whole stories without trying to fix them, they’re drawing on the power of empathy. Empathy and connection are a marvelous antidote to feelings of isolation and the weird shame that sometimes accompanies serious grief. You’re not a bad person for grieving and nothing is wrong with you. You aren’t broken, even though your heart is. You’re a human being getting through traumatic loss.
  • Practice lots of self-care, most especially when it feels like work. If you’re deep in grief, you sometimes need to remind yourself that you actually care about you. Grief is a good time to practice mindfulness, being fully present to your experience, and honoring your own process. Self-care is sometimes the last thing you want to do, but it does make a difference. At a minimum, try for good sleep, exercising, and eating adult meals. We have no grieving ritual for the kind of loss that comes with leaving academia, but you might create one. Rituals make intangible loss into a physical experience and provide an emotional space for the amorphous nature of grief.

Finally, even though you can do things to help yourself through the grief process, grief is much less about doing and much more about being and feeling. Grief absolutely feels awful and most people will do almost anything to avoid it. You can’t. Lean into it and be with it. Things might feel this way for a while. Let yourself grieve. It’s okay.


*Lisa’s Bio:  I graduated from the University of Arizona in 2015 with a PhD in Latin American history. I’ve got a long list of non-academic jobs, including being a Peace Corps volunteer (Guatemala, 2004-2006), a veterinary technician, a medical receptionist in a bilingual hospital office, a teacher, a study abroad assistant, and most recently, a crime victim advocate. I’ve lived in Guatemala and Mexico and am currently figuring out how to engineer my life so I can return there. I co-host the biweekly #withaphd chat on Twitter, where academics of all stripes can network and share with each other about life outside of academia. I’m passionate about writing about Latin America, history, archaeology, science and pseudoscience, neoliberalism, critical thinking, the writing process, adoption and child welfare, trauma, memoir, and my post-PhD life.

Blog link: http://www.lisamunro.net/blog-1/

Twitter link: http://www.twitter.com/llmunro


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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


Leaving Academia: Learning to Grieve – #Postac Post — 3 Comments

  1. I’m currently in a Ph.D. program, but I’m shocked by some professors who claim that there are a lots of jobs out there or won’t admit to their students about the realities of the job market. I’ve never accepted the notion that the best and brightest will get the jobs. In reality, I’ve seen people who have published books not get hire and individuals who had published nothing get tenure-track jobs. It’s really a crapshoot. What’s odd is that while some graduate students know this, they lie to themselves or ignore data because it makes them feel uncomfortable.

  2. Thanks so much for this post, it came at a great time. I chose to leave and found myself shocked this week to be missing my work, missing teaching, and *gasp* missing academia. This also pairs with the fact that my first alt-ac job is just that, a job, not a career. All those feelings of guilt and shame are so real they can drown out everything else. It’s good to know I’m not alone!

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